October 6, 2005

School May Be Liable for Student-On-Teacher Harassment

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Paul G. Lannon

Can a school be held liable when a student sexually harasses a teacher? “Yes,” says one federal court, building on earlier opinions from courts in New York and Illinois. In Plaza Torres v. Rey, 2005 WL 1581268, a case from the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, a female public school teacher alleged continuous sexual harassment by one of her male students. She reported the situation to school administrators but no corrective action took place. Two months later, the teacher resigned. She claimed she was forced to leave or be “constructively discharged” because the harassment had become intolerable.

The teacher sued under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on sex and other protected classifications. Sexual harassment that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment may constitute sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. This situation is commonly referred to as a “hostile work environment.” Liability attaches when an employer has notice of the hostile work environment but fails to take appropriate remedial measures. Applying these principles, courts have held schools and other employers liable for sexual harassment by supervisors and co-workers.

This case answers the more rare question of whether a school can be liable under Title VII when the harasser is not an employee but a student. The court in Plaza-Torres acknowledged that there is no U.S. Supreme Court or federal appellate decision precisely on point. However, other courts have held schools liable for teacher-on-student harassment, supervisor-on-teacher harassment and even harassment by non-employees. Indeed, the guidelines of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission state that employers may be liable for sexual harassment by non-employees. The court reasoned that the student-on-teacher harassment is most analogous to harassment by a non-employee, such as a customer or client. The court found support in recent opinions from New York and Illinois and in Title VII’s goal to eliminate all forms of sex discrimination in the workplace. Holding schools liable for sexual harassment by students supports this goal and is consistent with recent legal precedent.

Nonetheless, the court stressed that as in customer-on-employee harassment cases, liability will depend in large part on whether the school had adequate notice of the harassment and adequate means to control the harasser or take other remedial measures. In this case, the school administration had two months to take appropriate corrective action. Thus, the court ruled that a jury should decide whether two months was enough time.

The court also confirmed that victims of sexual harassment in the workplace have at least two avenues of relief under federal law: they may bring lawsuits under Title VII or under Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination in any education program receiving federal financial aid. The legal analysis under Title IX is substantially the same.

The decision in Plaza-Torres emphasizes for all schools the need to take prompt and effective remedial measures to protect employees from harassment or abuse at work, regardless of whether the harasser is a supervisor, co-worker, customer, student or even a member of the public.

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